(Photo courtesy of CH2M Hill)
The nation’s wastewater treatment infrastructure is in sorry
shape. Population growth and development have overwhelmed
expansion of collection systems across much of the U.S.
Maintenance often has lagged as many cities still rely on pipes
that were put in the ground over a century ago.
Over a third of Newark, N.J.’s 170-mile collection system is
Va.’s sewer network even has a few feet of wooden pipe underlying
its historic Old Town section. The two are not too different from
aging systems in many other cities that are prone to leaks and
A 2002 federal report estimated that 1.2 trillion gallons of
overflows occur each year from combined stormwater and sanitary
sewers. Inflow and infiltration is also a huge problem. "We
estimate that our I/I may run as high as 45%," says Emily Baker,
There are about 16,000 publicly owned treatment plants in the U.S.
Like the aging sewer systems that feed them, many have been
chronically underfunded and are now wearing out. "In many places,
the local politicians won’t step up," says Rob Pennington, an
engineer in the Edison, N.J., office of consulting engineer Camp
Dresser & McKee Inc. "They’re feeling strapped, probably running a
deficit, with no prospect of help from Washington or their state
capital. Problems are out of sight, either at the treatment plant
or buried underground. To raise rates with a big capital program
is viewed as a sure way for a politician to have an out-of-office
Fixing or replacing pipes is the next step in cleansing the
nation’s water and follows the early success of the construction
grants program included in 1972’s Federal Water Pollution Control
Act. The grant program funded a massive building of wastewater
plants that treated flows to secondary standards. But cities and
states are now on their own and the country seems stuck in a
holding pattern. A 2002 U.S. Environmental Protection Agency
analysis of water and wastewater treatment needs noted that
wastewater treatment efficiencies are leveling off.
It should come as no surprise. The federal government in 1980
pumped $9.7 billion into water and sewer systems. Adjusted for
inflation, that would be about $22 billion today. But by fiscal
2002 EPA funding had dwindled to a trickle of $2.2 billion a year.
Still, 35% of the nation’s rivers, lakes and streams remain unsafe
for fishing, swimming or drinking, claims EPA. Reducing that
percentage hinges on plugging sewer system leaks, overflows and
collecting and treating runoff from nonpoint sources, say
VINTAGE Like other cities,
water pipes and sewer system are showing their age. (Photo
courtesy of Seattle Public Utilities)
Although the Bush administration is not pushing EPA to pursue
major new regulation, the agency is working to improve water
quality through establishing total maximum daily loads for
specific pollutants in a given watershed, attacking disinfection
byproducts and refining its Capacity Management Operations and
Maintenance program, dubbed CMOM.
CMOM will require utilities to mitigate system overflows, provide
capacity for base and peak flows and initiate extensive mapping
and management controls. Delayed in 2000 and 2002, the industry
expects to see the rule in place some time next year.
"Collection systems are really stressed. Fixing them will be
really costly," says Pervaiz Anwar, director of business
consulting for Brown and Caldwell. "The federal government doesn’t
have the money. Neither do most utilities." The Walnut Creek,
Calif.-based engineer has formed a joint venture with Hunter Water
Corp., a utility operator-consultant in Newcastle, Australia, to
promote systems management.
"Asset management isn’t exactly new, but it’s surprising how many
utilities don’t even tell you the value of their assets," says
Anwar. "Maximizing efficiencies and programming O&M in a
systematic way is something that they’ve been doing in
and New Zealand for about two decades."
The partnership already has assisted a number of U.S. utilities in
implementing asset management programs, including agencies in
Seattle, San Diego, Sacramento and Orange County, Calif. The
agencies are proactively implementing systematic programs that
will probably resemble the forthcoming federal regulations, says
While the federal government has pared funding, local rates have
more than doubled. Still, the Association of Metropolitan Sewerage
Agencies survey on rates shows the annual increase in local
spending ran well ahead of the U.S. Consumer Price Index through
1994. In four of eight years since, the annual investment pace has
lagged the index.
"Even though our members are trying to do their share, it’s clear
that the existing financial model is inadequate," says AMSA
Executive Director Ken Kirk. AMSA is trying to garner support for
dedicated funding, similar to the highway trust fund that uses a
tax on fuels to pay for federal highway system improvements. Kirk
doubts the Bush administration will consider new taxes in any
form. Still, "we believe that some sort of a dedicated fund is an
idea with merit," he says.
EPA’s 2002 needs assessment supports his argument. The country
needs to invest between $331 billion and $450 billion on
wastewater treatment infrastructure by 2019, according to the
study. Operation and maintenance needs are not included but the
O&M gap adds between $72 billion and $229 billion.
A similar report issued last November by the Congressional Budget
Office puts the annual shortfall for wastewater treatment at $20.9
billion per year. Annual O&M needs range between $20.3 billion and
Without an infusion of cash from somewhere, EPA fears a reversal
of "hard-won water quality gains. By 2016 pollution levels could
be similar to levels observed in the mid-1970s," the report notes.
Few expect much assistance from
however. Near-term financial projections for the federal deficit
are bleak. Municipal officials know that federal assistance of the
kind that supported the big capital programs of the 1970s and
1980s won’t happen. "We’re on our own," says Chuck Clarke, Seattle
Public Utilities executive director. "It’s pretty much us and our
SCALING UP In Newark, rehab contractor expanded cured-in-place
pipe technology to 108-in.-dia sewer. (Photo courtesy
But some cities are reporting significant progress on programs
that began more than a decade ago. Newark’s trunk lines date to
the 19th Century and provide about a third of the Passaic Valley
Sewerage Commission Plant’s 330-million-gal-per-day average flow.
"We knew [around] 1990 that we’d have to spend about $50 million
to bring the system up to current standards," says John George,
Newark Water and Sewer’s program manager. Residents could not
afford to finance that large of a program at once.
Anchored by a $44.3-million EPA grant, the city cobbled together
funding from phased rate hikes, bonds and low-interest state
loans. New Jersey lawmakers holding key positions on federal
public works committees at the time assisted in landing the grant.
"Their political stars were properly aligned," says Richard D.
Fox, CDM president. "When that happens, you have to take
The program, broken into five phases, focuses on CSO abatement and
storm drainage, with an emphasis on pipe rehabilitation and
repair. CDM manages project design and contract administration.
is benefitting from recent advances in cured-in-place-pipe
technology and spirited competition for contracts.
"Margins have come down as more people have come in," admits Doug
Sanders, CIPP director of Spiniello Cos., which has won the
majority of the rehab work in Newark. The Morristown, N.J.-based
contractor has carved out a lucrative niche in large-bore CIPP
work. Relining pipe with a diameter of 48 in. and larger earns the
firm roughly $30 million a year–about half the company’s revenue,
says Sanders. "Margins can be higher, but so are the risks," he
Recently, Spiniello crews ran CIPP sections of 105 in. and 108 in.
in diameter, setting new standards for large-bore work. The
process typically needs a two-day window of dry weather. Crews
feed a resin-impregnated felt liner into pipe from one manhole
cover to the next, then fill it with heated water that triggers a
reaction to harden the resin. Water is pumped out and crews cut
openings at the ends and to lateral lines. Structurally, the
hardened tube "is sound and strong as concrete," says Pennington.
"It should last 50 to 100 years."
George says the improved friction coefficient more than offsets
the decrease in diameter. Equally important, CIPP minimizes
disruption in busy downtown areas. "Cut and cover tears up streets
for months at a time. This way, we take it block by block and
we’re in and out in days," he says.
Nashville also is succeeding in its program (ENR 2/17/1997 p. 32).
In 1990 the Tennessee Dept. of Environment and Conservation
imposed a moratorium on sewer hook-ups. TDEC was alarmed at
pollution from 20 billion gallons of untreated effluent spilling
each year into the Cumberland River watershed from the city’s
sanitary and combined sewers.
detention chamber helped restore 33 miles of
(Photo courtesy of CTE)
The city hired Consoer Townsend Envirodyne Engineers Inc.,
Chicago, to help develop and manage a $1.3-billion program. Work
includes CSO separation, equalization basins, primary bypass
blending, CIPP rehabilitation and new pump stations and pipelines.
It reduced overflows "from 21 billion gallons in 1990 to less than
1 billion gallons in 2002, and [eliminated] 24 CSO and 124 SSO
overflow points," says Vernon D. Thompson, CTE vice president.
Last November, regulators removed 33 miles of the
from a list of impaired waters.
Other municipalities have stumbled. In
Ala., initial estimates pegged costs between $250,000 and $1.2
million to implement a 1996 federal consent decree for
rehabilitation of the regional system. But now the estimate is
closer to $3 billion, and sewer rates are likely to rise 12.5% a
year for the next eight years, says Gary Martin, project manager
for BE&K Engineering Co., which last year performed an audit of
County Commissioner Gary White demanded the audit after taking
control of the Jefferson County environmental services department.
The BE&K-led team wrote a blistering review of program
mismanagement, finding that the county and the environmental
department made a number of "unwise decisions" that significantly
increased capital and operating costs.
Under the consent decree, the county took over the sewer systems
of 21 municipalities, adding 12 million linear feet of sewer line
to its existing 3 million feet. It set a 2007 deadline 2007 to
eliminate sewer overflows and bring nine treatment plants into
Clean Water Act compliance.
"Decisions were made early in the game that increased costs,’’
One disputed action was the county’s decision to spend about $1
billion to increase treatment plant capacities, even though
wastewater flows have not increased in five years and were not
projected to increase. The capacity of the largest plant was
doubled from 60 mgd to 120 mgd. "But it has never seen more than
40 mgd and that was in 1997,’’ says Martin.
Auditors found that the county did not review other technologies
for cost-efficient alternatives. Contractor prequalification
methods increased costs unnecessarily and ineffective cost and
schedule controls pushed costs upward. "There is no such thing as
no surprises in construction, but they could have had a better
handle on the order of magnitude,’’ says Martin.
The report recommended the county hire an experienced program
manager because the environmental department went from a
$25-million-a-year operation to a $250-million-a-year agency.
"It’s a monumental task. They’ve done some things right. It’s hard
to know what you’re not doing if you don’t have the tools to do
it,’’ says Martin.
Complicated public works projects benefit from the hiring of
outside program managers, say many in the industry. "What a
program manager brings to the table is the ability to focus
resources on the problem, manage the risks and make sure the
product is delivered,’’ says Skip Holland, managing executive for
program management at MWH, Broomfield, Colo.
PAY TO PLAY Kids love
fountains, but city faces $3-billion clean water upgrade.
(Photos courtesy of MWH)
MWH is program manager for
$3-billion sewerage program. The job is driven by two consent
decrees, one for combined sewer overflows and the other for
sanitary system overflows. Some 15% of the city’s sewers serving
19 square miles of downtown Atlanta are combined. The city now is
building an 8.5-mile-long, 24-ft-dia tunnel designed to hold 150
million gallons of overflow. Flows would be pumped to a treatment
plant when capacity becomes available. The city considered
building another tunnel but value engineering determined that a
storage tank near the treatment plant would be enough, says Rob
Hunter, deputy commissioner for watershed management. The city has
completed 10 short-term SSO projects, including an 8-mile-long,
16-ft-dia holding tunnel in the northern part of the city, but now
it is evaluating the system to determine the next step.
Unlike Birmingham, Atlanta must add new capacity to accommodate
its rampant growth. New capacity is not included in the decree,
but is part of the total upgrade. "In rough terms, $1 billion is
for SSO, $1 billion is for CSO and $1 billion is tied to other
regulations,’’ says Hunter.
The problem facing both cities is how to pay for $3-billion
systems. While Birmingham’s rates could double, Atlanta’s rates
could triple, with the heaviest burden falling on its poorest
citizens. Mayor Shirley Franklin (D) asked
County to put a local option sales tax on the ballot to help fund
the projects, but county officials refused.
Both communities are facing rate hikes that are unaffordable, says
Eric Rothstein, senior economist with Denver-based CH2M Hill Cos.,
a part of Atlanta’s program management team. Within five years,
low-income residents could face sewer and water bills that are 6
to 8% of their disposable income, far above EPA’s 2% threshold.
Both municipalities need legislation that will allow them to
spread the burden over a larger rate base, says Rothstein.
Even that might not be enough. For years engineers have been
content to act as silent partners for their municipal clients,
says William Howard, chief technology officer for CDM and incoming
chair of the American Council of Engineering Companies. For their
own sake and for the public good, they must assume a more active
role, he says.
"Engineers have to plead their case to the public and to
Washington," he says. "If all the work on the table needs to be
funded locally, it will never happen."